A Reverential Liszt Collection
Liszt: Harmonies Patriotiques et Religieuses Eva Polgar, piano; Hunnia Records HRCD 2101 Total Time: 60:42 Recording: ****/**** Performance: ****/****
Out of the many virtuoso pianist-composers of the 19th Century, none can compare to Franz Liszt (1811-1886) for the sheer breadth of his playing and compositional innovations. His musical ideas would influence composers well into the 20th Century. Most listeners gravitate toward his more nationalistic showpieces, but for those willing to explore some of his more spiritual side, which appeared in his later works, there is also much to treasure. In her new album, Eva Polgar sets out to help us enter in to both of these spheres of Liszt’s musical style with a collection that encompasses Liszt’s spiritual and national side.
Liszt used certain keys to help connect with broader philosophical ideas and one can hear this a bit in the religious pieces here. For him, E Major often was associated with a more serene religious feeling and they are part of the sound world encapsulated in several works on this current release. The opening Sursum cords, Erhebet eure Herzen, S. 163/7, has a touch of that along with some striking pentatonic scalar motion. It appears in the “Offertorium”, S. 501/2, from the Hungarian Coronation Mass (1867), which also includes the “Benedictus”, S. 501/2. The former has glints of Liszt’s nationalist flavoring along with a touch of the virtuosi displays from his more popular work. The spirituality of nature appears in the brilliance of “Les jeux d’eaux a la Villa d’Este” S. 163/4 (the other piece here from the third suite of the Annees de pelerinage. Here the trickling water, amazingly depicted here flowing across the piano, has its own spiritual connection to the “living water”. The piece itself is from 1877 and is filled with Impressionist gestures. This is one of the highlights of the album.
In the center of the release, we shift to more nationalistic fervor beginning with the Hungarian Rhapsody, No. 11, S. 244, as well as a couple of Csardas (S. 225/1 and 2). One gets a sense of the showmanship of Liszt the performer as the music teases us with rhythms and folkish hints in the opening flourishes before entering the salon of popular musical style, always more elegant with a dash of flair and even a bit of longing. Polgar’s interpretation brings these elements so well. The two csardas are later works that give us a taste of the new harmonic territories Liszt was exploring as well. You can hear how he mixes the tempo shifts of these folk dances even in Puszta Wehmuth, S. 246.
The last three works bring us back to the more religious side again, first with a meditation from his 1837-38 set, Album d’un voyager. The instrumental meditation on Psalm 42, S. 156/7, is an early musing on the personality of St. Francis. The album closes with the two Legends, S. 175, which are both stunning encapsulations of some of Liszt’s deepest spiritual feelings and reverence.
Eva Polgar’s performances here really sparkle in the upper register passages. She also brings a proper level of gravitas and reflection when needed as well. The sustaining of harmonies in these moments is equally moving and the attention to the detail in her pedaling choices brings out the style of the music so well. The more technical passages are dashed off without overwhelming the music’s communicative power and that makes this release all the more engaging. The overall sequencing of the program also moves intelligently along engaging listeners with each turn. There is also an underlying intensity of feeling that comes through in her playing which elevates the music as well to a heartfelt interpretation of these pieces. Overall, a unique and quite stunningly-recorded set of Liszt’s music that is worth tracking down for one’s own moments of pause and meditation from one of the great master’s of 19th-century music.